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The safest, best-designed streets Los Angeles has ever seen—including the city's first protected bike lanes—are coming to downtown, thanks to the Figueroa Corridor Streetscape Project (or, for short, MyFigueroa). With over $30 million from a state grant managed by the Community Redevelopment Agency, the project will fund infrastructural improvements that make the experience better for walkers, bikers, and transit-riders over a three-mile stretch of Figueroa Street. These type of streetscape projects, called "livable" or "complete" streets, are long overdue for Los Angeles, says CRA/LA Figueroa Corridor consultant Deborah Murphy. "They've been doing this stuff all over the world for the last 20 years," she says. "We're the last kids to get with the program."
The project itself was awarded in 2008 as part of a proposition that hoped to improve infrastructure near affordable housing projects, several of which are located close to Figueroa. But the area is also home to come of the city's biggest entertainment draws, like Staples Center and the Convention Center, as well as the large student population of USC. These improvements will be able to make commuting more comfortable for the city's most transit-dependent residents and also help build better parks and public space for tourists, students, and sports fans.
Last week, the project held community workshops where local residents could comment on the proposals, which were largely positive. Some complaints came from people who were worried about parking and that putting streets on a "road diet" would create increased traffic. (Murphy says that the amount of existing, off-street parking will not be changed and that traffic studies have ensured that downtown arteries won't get clogged.) Click through the slideshow of some visuals of what L.A.'s streets might look like in the near future, from the project team of Troller Mayer Associates, Melendrez, and Gehl Architects. To chime in, or to get more information, head to MyFigueroa to learn about upcoming events, or join their Facebook page. What do you think about L.A.'s street makeover?
One of the biggest issues in downtown—and throughout L.A.—is that riders don't feel safe on the streets, says Murphy. "People are riding on the sidewalk," she says. "I've asked a lot of people who said they can ride on the street for a few blocks, but it's really challenging." The designers were sure to make protected bike lanes a priority, even though, says Murphy, they're not technically legal in Los Angeles yet. For this project, as well as series of protected bike lanes in Long Beach currently under construction, the city has to file for exemptions. "Basically, it's against the law," she says.
The proposals for Figueroa Street are divided into "good," "better," and "best." The entire street would be configured to the "good" specs, with the protected bike lane, more trees, new paving, and general improvements to the pedestrian experience with crosswalk striping and mid-block crossings. The "better" and "best" schemes would be seen at more high-traffic intersections, like near Staples Center and USC's Galen Center.
South Los Angeles is an extremely transit-dependent community, with many people using the bus or light-rail lines. The "better" proposal adds elements that make waiting for a bus or train more pleasant, like increased shade shelters, trees, and areas with seating. This also benefits people living in affordable housing, says Murphy. "If we can improve connectivity, these people can have more money if they're not having to spend it on a car."
The "best" proposal features a lively streetscape that will be used for pedestrian-heavy events like Lakers games, where people can congregate and sit in park-like environments. These "urban intensity" areas will feature dramatically narrowed roads, with more lanes for transit and biking, and restaurants and shops with widened sidewalks. "If the pedestrian path is too narrow, businesses don't do well," says Murphy. "How do we transform that street into open space, a linear park?"
The project includes a half-mile of perpendicular 11th Street, where a new residential community has brought hundreds of new urban dwellers to the city. This portion of the proposal is a "pedestrian priority"corridor, which will turn the street into a single-lane roadway where only some cars are allowed. This portion of the streetscape will be the most like a real park. Also note the presence of planters and other permeable concrete surfaces that allows rainwater into sink into the ground instead of being flushed down the sewer.
A new park along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard features cafe tables, temporary kiosks, and a jogging track, much of which will help facilitate extra pedestrian traffic on USC game days. Copenhagen-based Gehl Architects brought an outsider's voice to the project, which Murphy thinks is healthy. But they also brought their great experience redesigning many cities, including recent work for New York. "They have a proven track record in the U.S. so it's been a little easier to have this dialogue," says Murphy. "When it's in other countries people have a tendency to write it off as something they can only do in Europe."
Bill Robertson Lane functions as a gateway to Exposition Park yet its unimaginative streetscape does little to contribute to the park's experience. The designers advocate a partial closing of the street to turn this thoroughfare into more of a public square, which will help when the Expo Line light rail opens new stations to the north later this year, and even more people will be walking these blocks.
Some parts of the proposal are not yet funded, like this freeway underpass that looks more like an art gallery. Paloma Walk would connect the two sides of USC's campus that are divided by the 110 freeway. It would also use an old rail right-of-way and convert it into a green corridor. Says Murphy about the project as a whole: "The Department of Transportation wants to find ways to make this happen, but they have to find a way to implement it." The project only has until the end of 2013 to build all the elements that the funding allocates.